Mary Reynolds: The Other Ark -- Acts of Restorative Kindness
February 15, 2024 11:35 PM   Subscribe

She won the biggest awards in Landscape Gardening, a movie made about her, commissioned for some of the boldest landscaping projects in Ireland. She stopped being a gardener. What happened? “It’s very simple. I looked out onto my garden. A fox ran across, it was probably winter/spring last year, which isn’t that unusual. Then a couple of hares ran after him, and I thought, well that is unusual. And then a family of hedgehogs. Now, they are nocturnal, so I knew something was going on. I went for a wander and it turns out a digger had gone in across the road. It used to be an acre of gorse, bramble, hawthorn, blackthorn, but someone had cleaned out the whole field to replace it with a garden. I stood there in horror – and realized I’d done this many times in my career."

"They (the displaced animals) had nowhere else to go. We’re taking away their habitats, the agricultural land is poisoned, old growth forest decimated, and now the only hope they have is abandoned land or gardens. It just reminded me of Noah’s Arc, all those animals going onto the boat, but in reverse. So I decided to give up my job. I have to dedicate myself to righting the wrong I’ve done."

ARK stands for Acts of Restorative Kindness to the earth. The aim is to empower people to restore health and sanctuary into as many places they can fit – it ranges from 1700 acres in US to window boxes.

“It become clear that all land not used for growing food, we should give it back! Unless kids are playing on the grass, just give it back, give it back. I wanted to write a book, but I don’t know we have the time, we’re almost out of time, I didn’t want to waste time publishing. So I decided to set up the We Are The Ark website instead."

Is it a form of rewilding?

“It’s ARKing rather than formal rewilding. Bringing large predators back into system is rewilding, so this is where we are the top thing doing the ecosystem services that the large creatures normally do."

"So people give as much land back as possible to nature. Plants are becoming extinct, they are conscious beings, I’ve never understood the lack of protection for them. The arc is about giving as much sanctuary as possible.”


Mary Reynolds (Home Page -- Reformed Landscape Designer Wikipedia TEDxWexford) was a star, accolades and rewards of every type. Then she caught herself in the act of not being who she wanted to be. She turned herself inside out. Mary Reynolds wants to make a difference. Mary Reynolds wants to make a change. Mary Reynolds is doing so. A perfect fit for MetaFilter, a Star with Courage and Heart and a big, happy smile.
posted by dancestoblue (17 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Towards the end of his long life James "Gaia" Lovelock used to beat himself up for planting trees on his little farm in Devon: what he should have done is just lock up his scythe and walk away. Natural succession would have given him a forest (before he died) that was a natural fit for the local climate. By natural fit, I mean one that was as diverse and inclusive as possible and so more robust to the slings and arrows of outrageous epidemics and weather disasters.

That's fine and dandy, but in the winters of '07 '08 & '09 we went ahead and planted an acre (0.4 ha) just below our home with small-small trees - mainly ash Fraxinus excelsior; Scots Pinus sylvestris; larch Larix europaeus (all 'native' of course). Round the edge: an incipient hedge of hawthorn Crataegus monogyna, blackthorn Prunus spinosa and hazel Corylus avellana. No regrets! The trees are now as tall at the house and we can no longer see the neighbour's ugly silver barn. Well the ash are all done for through a continent-wide infestation by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus causing ash dieback. Non-native fast-growing sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus fills at least some part of the ash niche and with no effort at all we have acquired a few nice looking examples in our micro-wood. Lots of interesting arrivals in the under-storey too.
I think we're on the same chapter if not the same page as Mary "Next County" Reynolds. It's still legit to nudge the process of succession a bit.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:29 AM on February 16 [6 favorites]

Related: 15mins of Merlin "Mycelium" Sheldrake [MetaPrev] before the UK parliamentary STEM committee last week talking about the vital importance of fungi to all ecosystems. Full transcript
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:39 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]

People will garden, and they will plant their old favorites without thinking about whether they're appropriate to the area, so it would be good to have gardening stores that sell only local native plants. Is there such a thing? I'd like to see a place where you could walk in and buy absolutely anything, no research required, and know that the plant is appropriate to where you live (assuming you live near the store), and that the store employees are familiar with those plants, because that's all they carry.
posted by pracowity at 2:02 AM on February 16 [11 favorites]

Natural succession would have given him a forest (before he died) that was a natural fit for the local climate

I mean it's a nice thought but it just doesn't happen like that. Old grazing land will not naturally grow back the forest before in anyone's singular lifetime, trees would take root but they are as likely to be an invasive species as native. You can make an argument that they therefore must be suited to the local conditions seeing as they grow so well but it goes down badly if you try.
posted by deadwax at 2:37 AM on February 16 [14 favorites]

The Man who Planted Trees
posted by anshuman at 3:05 AM on February 16

We've got a little nursery near us that only sells, not just only indigenous plants, but only plants indigenous to our neighborhood.

The distinction is interesting because a lot of plants labelled "indigenous" are based on political rather than ecological criteria.

I've got an "indigenous" tree that I planted next to my house, that actually comes from the Eastern Cape, not the Western Cape (where I live) but it's all Southern Africa.

I have a reflexive distrust for this type of thing because many people around here seem to have a purity-based approach, and will police others for the alien species in their gardens, while many of the plants they consider to be indigenous (and therefore acceptable) are actually from completely different biomes.

Often this is justified, as its easy to create a green desert that consumes too much water and doesn't support local species. Or you might be harbouring invasive species that can spread rapidly.

But it's often not as clear cut what is alien and what is not, and when in our history we're drawing the line "anything introduced after this date is alien".

When we moved into our house, the backyard was a concrete box, and the front was a lawn covered in duwweltjies (you might know them as caltrops).

I've managed to turn both those into a garden with water wise plants a small pond. Just a few days ago I found that an endangered leopard toad is living next to my pond, and yesterday I found some signs that there might be bats living under our eaves.

I've seen many other small creatures too.

Feels good.
posted by Zumbador at 3:48 AM on February 16 [18 favorites]

a simple start that everyone who owns any land can do is just to STOP raking/blowing leaves & STOP mowing the lawn*. if we can follow a guideline so zealously as paper vs plastic bags , this is even easier. (i've been saying this since 1980... i don't anymore add, "in 200 years you'll have a climax forest" because i've learned this isn't true for a lot of climates & a lot of parcels of land--but it DOES NO HARM TO THINK SO.)

* i know, i know, the city will get onto you. but tell them it's science. tell them it's art. tell them it's your adopted family.
posted by graywyvern at 4:59 AM on February 16 [6 favorites]

pracowity, I can't speak for everywhere, but here in New England we have a number of native plant nurseries. I'm currently taking a class on native plant gardening, with an eye to semi-rewilding the whole yard. On the first day of class, we learned that native plants support hundreds of insect species (and then on further up the food chain), while invasives and non-natives support only one or two. There are particular species that are keystones, and I'm looking to plant some of those.

The previous owner of the home had only three tiny narrow strips of garden around a whole lot of pavers, and believed you should never touch anything and instead just let grow what grows there. That's fine, but when you've got a strip that's just 18 inches wide with pavers on one side and fence on the other, it's a hostile environment to most plants. It was nothing but invasives. I know it's going to be a years-long project to change it, and I am not temperamentally inclined to years-long projects, but I know it's important.
posted by rednikki at 5:57 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]

There is a wild, flowering bush growing in the backyard (it is actually showing signs of a lot of new growth right now, despite it being February in Ontario, but with this weather we've been having I guess the plant thinks it is spring). The name of it escapes me, but I looked it up last summer to find out more about it. According to the province, it is an invasive species that was originally introduced to North America in the 1700s.

So yes, technically, it's not indigenous but it has had centuries to become part of the landscape. I'm reluctant to do away with it. It has never spread to the rest of the yard, and I think it has earned its home amongst the rest of the native woodland plants that have been grown here since long before anybody decided to build on this land--especially since I have no idea if the rest of the species are truly "native" or if they are also centuries-old invaders.
posted by sardonyx at 6:34 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]

In most of the anglosphere, doing nothing will not get you a diverse forest full of appropriate species, it will get you a dominant cover of whatever handful of invasive species that are fouling your region.

Paving and killing and installing exotic species is not the answer, but neither is doing nothing.

(Yes I am a professional ecologist and am fully happy to contradict whatever lovelock was on about.)
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:42 AM on February 16 [20 favorites]

Even if you resist the urge to clear and manicure, even if you plant all native plants in a responsible way, there's definitely useful work you can do as a steward, balancing things, helping plants find their best spot, removing invasive plants. I'd bet Reynolds would wholeheartedly agree.

Comrade Doll talked me into buying the house we have now largely for its backyard. After seven years, it's gone from 99% grass to probably 65% grass. So many more flowers, plants, vegetables. Most of our neighbors love it, but some wish it were "more structured." She puts so much care put into finding perennials that are native, that love this weather, that endure. Every bit of everything cut ending up rendered as fertilizer for something else. We plant some things to eat, but some things "for the bunnies and the bees" The flooding problem we used to have is gone, because the soil has improved so much. Her goal is to gradually eliminate the grass, until eventually the entire yard is chaotic flowers.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:01 AM on February 16 [11 favorites]

This nursery is about a mile from us. Pretty good selection, though the scale is about a quarter of most of the nurseries we visit.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 8:50 AM on February 16

There are specialty native plant nurseries! In Missouri in the US, I buy native plants from Missouri Wildflowers Nursery, Ozark Soul, River City Natives, and Papillon Perennials, all of which specialize in Missouri native plants. I also sometimes order shipped plants from Prairie Moon Nursery which sells plants more broadly native to the Midwest US.

I use the Missouri Prairie Foundation's excellent Grow Native website to learn about the best plants to grow in specific sun and soil conditions in my home garden, and I have also learned a lot from the Missouri Botanical Garden, which has several native plant displays, and members of the Missouri Native Plant Society. Similar organizations may exist in your area. Try reaching out to them and asking if they know about native plant nurseries near you.

I moved into my current home, a suburban house on 1/3 of an acre, 6 years ago and have been working to convert the grass lawn and formal ornamental gardens that came with the house into vegetable garden space, permaculture garden space, and wildlife habitat. At this point I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 different native plant species (including a couple of endangered ones) growing in my yard; the total number of native plants including duplicates of the same species is probably around 150 but now that things are starting to self-seed, who can be sure?

85 species of plants might sound like a lot of work. But that was really only me planting 10 - 15 new species each year over the course of six years. My goal is to get to over 100 separate native species this year.

I do NOT have an HOA, which helps a lot in my getting away with having an unconventional suburban yard. I DO have some golf course lawn neighbors who find my insistence on maintaining a brush pile, leaving dead stalks up over the winter, and leaving leaves where they fall (all to provide habitat and food for native insects and wildlife) mildly irritating. But I have a lot of other neighbors who like to look at my garden, are very interested in what I am doing, and stop by to ask me questions whenever they see me working in my yard. Knock on wood, the city hasn't fined me yet.
posted by BlueJae at 12:09 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]

My yard is sadly almost entirely invasive plants (looking at you, oxalis) despite my best efforts at restoring native plants
posted by cali at 12:39 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Sometimes you just don't know what to do. I planted rosemary in my garden to provide forage for bees. Turns out, wasps like it too! And, it turns out, wasps are also pollinators. But wasps also prey on bees. So, in the end, did I help or hurt?
posted by SPrintF at 1:43 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Crime Pays But Botany Doesn't on YouTube has a small subset of videos titled "Kill Your Lawn" which he goes over replacing your typical suburban yard with friendlier native plants. His videos are all worth watching if you have even a casual interest in plants, geology and ecosystems.
posted by maxwelton at 2:28 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

Her goal is to gradually eliminate the grass, until eventually the entire yard is chaotic flowers. Please send Comrade Doll my regards, DirtyOldTown. That sounds wonderful!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:59 PM on February 29

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